Archive for January, 2013
On 28 January 2013 Idle No More protesters gathered in no fewer than 30 Canadian cities. They were joined by solidarity protests around the world as the indigenous grassroots movement marked a global day of action.
We contend that: The Treaties are nation to nation agreements between The Crown and First Nations who are sovereign nations. The Treaties are agreements that cannot be altered or broken by one side of the two Nations. The spirit and intent of the Treaty agreements meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to lands and resources. Instead, First Nations have experienced a history of colonization which has resulted in outstanding land claims, lack of resources and unequal funding for services such as education and housing.
We contend that: The state of Canada has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world by using the land and resources. Canadian mining, logging, oil and fishing companies are the most powerful in the world due to land and resources. Some of the poorest First Nations communities have mines or other developments on their land but do not get a share of the profit. The taking of resources has left many lands and waters poisoned – the animals and plants are dying in many areas in Canada. We cannot live without the land and water. We have laws older than this colonial government about how to live with the land.
We contend that: Currently, this government is trying to pass many laws so that reserve lands can also be bought and sold by big companies to get profit from resources. They are promising to share this time…Why would these promises be different from past promises? We will be left with nothing but poisoned water, land and air. This is an attempt to take away sovereignty and the inherent right to land and resources from First Nations peoples.
We contend that: There are many examples of other countries moving towards sustainability, and we must demand sustainable development as well. We believe in healthy, just, equitable and sustainable communities and have a vision and plan of how to build them. Please join us in creating this vision.
A rather malicious reaction to the Idle No More Movement concerns the widely held belief that “it is about time these people moved out of the past and into the 21st century”. Just assimilate and get over it! After all, conventional “wisdom” suggests that white Europeans “conquered” the “Indians.” This is, of course, propaganda.
Contrary to popular belief, indigenous peoples did not surrender their land or sovereignty to the Europeans. Treaties were a scheme devised by the white man to circumvent costly Indian Wars, like those ensuing in the American West (see also here). Moreover, it was believed that once whites “killed the Indian and saved the man,” the treaties would prove unnecessary because supposedly all indigenous peoples would become “civilized” and assimilate into white society.
The white man believed indigenous peoples were just that docile! The white man was wrong!
Aaron Paquette, one of Canada’s premiere First Nations artists, recently captured just how erroneous this thinking was when discussing the Idle No More Movement. He asks: “why are Canada’s Indigenous Peoples the only ones who are standing up? Why are they now the World’s Protectors?”
This is much greater than angry protesting natives, this is about becoming aware. First they gutted the sciences, long term studies that would help us understand our ecosystem better so we could develop more responsibly, and no one said a word. Then they cut funding for our shared history and those who work to preserve it, while at the same time dumping tens of millions of dollars into celebrating a British colony war that happened before we were even a country, and still no one said anything. Then the world was made aware of the shameful conditions for small children growing up on underfunded, polluted Reservations. A small murmur and then nothing. And now, because of the apathy they see, this government has taken galling steps to sell out our wilderness, our resources and sovereignty. And not even to the highest bidder. It’s a yard sale with no regard for responsibility or care for anyone who might be negatively affected (in other words, all of us). From millions of protected waterways a couple weeks ago, we now have hundreds. Yes, you read that right.
As Kent McNeil, professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University (Toronto) has argued, the Idle No More Movement deserves the thanks of all Canadians as it has exposed a lack of respect for aboriginal and treaty rights on the part of the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
April Blackbird is a sociology honours students and politics major at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada and a First Nations activist. Kimberley A. Ducey is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.
In Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” My contention is that we are witnessing a similar retrogression in the wake of the Second Reconstruction. Blacks are no longer in the back of the bus—indeed we’re in the White House!—but this has been manipulated, not to advance the cause of racial justice, but on the contrary, to camouflage the dismantling of affirmative action and antiracism policies generally….
WHAT BETTER EXAMPLE of counterrevolution than the passage of Voter ID laws that are nothing more than an incarnation of the poll tax and the grandfather clause — race neutral on their face but patently racist both in their intent and their impact. According to the Brennan Center, these laws will effectively disfranchise as many as 5 million voters, disproportionately black and Latino. Add to this another 6 million impacted by restrictions on felon’s voting rights. So disfranchisement is back. And that’s not all. Convict labor is back, implicating major corporations who have found a reserve army of cheap labor in the prison industrial complex. Back, too, are vagrancy laws in new guise. In New York City, that famed citadel of tolerance, last year there were nearly 800,000 stop-and-frisk searches, 87 percent involving blacks or Latinos. Indeed, so is lynching. What else was the Trayvon Martin case if not Emmett Till all over again—an official license and cover-up for killing a young black man who crossed the color line?
The seeds of counterrevolution were planted even before the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Laws, and came to early fruition in the 1968 election when Humphrey won only 10 percent of the white Southern vote. (Obama won 20 percent of the white vote in the Deep South, a grim measure of “progress.”) As social scientists say in their prosaic fashion, this marked the beginning of “a political realignment,” as the “Solid South” turned solidly Republican. But let’s be clear at what is involved here: “Negroes” were granted elementary rights of citizenship, and within a decade the entire South seceded from the Democratic Party! What was even more ominous was George Wallace’s unexpected traction with white voters in the urban North. The handwriting was on the wall: as Thomas Edsall and Mary Edsall wrote in Chain Reaction, the Republican Party would emerge as the party of segregation…. One figure speaks tons: 89 percent of Romney votes came from white non-Hispanics.
With Obama in the White House, Republicans can have it both ways. They shamelessly tap the reservoir of racism to discredit Obama, to deride national health insurance as “Obamacare,” tagging any social welfare policy as stealth reparations for blacks who exist as freeloaders on the public treasure, and now to unconscionably transgress democratic principle by restoring Jim Crow subterfuges to suppress black voting rights. At the same time, Republicans reap the advantage of having a President who puts a black face on neoliberalism at home and imperialism abroad.
Stephen Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College & the Graduate Center, City University of New York. This is an excerpt of an article in the current issue of New Politics.
The first Latino and openly gay man to deliver an inaugural poem, Richard Blanco read a powerful poem at the 2013 inaugration of President Barack Obama today. If you’d like to learn more about Blanco, as so many of us did after hearing him read, you can check out this interview with him from PBS Newshour. In case you missed the poem, you can see it in this short (7:14) video:
The transcript of the poem follows.
by Richard Blanco
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
On January 15, 2013 the Oxygen network released a tentative statement about discontinuing the production of All My Babies’ Mamas. This reality TV show would peek into the life of the not-so-well-known U.S. rapper Shawty Lo who currently has 11 children by 10 different women, a 19 year-old girlfriend, and is rumored to have another baby on the way by his ex-girlfriend Jai Jai. Thankfully, on January 16th the network canceled the show after receiving almost 40,000 signatures from Change.org. In response to the cancellation requests, Oxygen V.P. Julie Rothman said, “[this show] is not meant to be a stereotypical representation of everyday life for any one demographic or cross section of society. It is a look at one unique family and their complicated, intertwined life.” Yet, Rothman’s statement leaves lingering questions. With all the unique families out there, why did Oxygen choose this family? Why didn’t Oxygen pursue a celebrity like Bill Clinton for a reality show? The focus could be upon Clinton’s many extra-marital affairs.
In the media, Black families have become representative of dysfunction. Americans have been laughing about stereotypical “Black people” for so long, such comic relief has become an addiction that many, like Julie Rothman, defend. Black parents often find themselves at the receiving end of media-based jokes about Black families. “Baby Daddy”/“Baby Mama” labels have become an omnipresent symbolic representation of broken Black families. The portrayal of unmarried Black mothers becomes yet another way in which dominant group values are juxtaposed against marginalized identities. These so-called “Baby Mamas” are most often caricaturized as being poor- but gold digging- welfare recipients who want nothing more than money, child support, and the latest hairstyle. Media portrayals frequently present uncaring mothers who leave their children in abject poverty while they go to receive beauty treatments or find another man to victimize in an effort to acquire more child support. These deleterious stereotypes become crystallized and reinforced through what the media decides to broadcast and rebroadcast to the public. For a more thorough discussion about media stereotypes of African Americans (see The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America by Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki (University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Now back to Shawty Lo. There are men from various racial/ethnic backgrounds in the U.S. who father children out of wedlock, including Levi Johnston (the father of Sara Palin’s grandson) and Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has seven children by five different women though he has only married twice. Yet a show called “All Clint’s Babies’ Mamas” ridiculing Eastwood would never occur to reality show producers. And the mothers of Eastwood’s children would not become sideshow attractions to his extra-marital exploits. Why? Because he is White + Male + Affluent and in the U.S. we humanize those who fit these intersecting categories regardless of their transgressions. Shawty Lo represents those who are Black + Male + “Ghetto” and persons who fit these intersecting categories tend to be reduced to the transgressions they make.
In “Al My Babies’ Mamas” the mothers of Carlos Walker’s (aka Shawty Lo’s) children are cast as laughable, sideshow attractions in a nation where the disproportionately high number of Black single mothers is no laughing matter. In 2011, it was estimated by the Annie E. Casey Data Center that 67% of Black children grow up in single parent households; and 38.4% of children in Black female-headed households live in poverty according to 2011 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Given Julie Rothman’s claims above, why didn’t Oxygen take the more humanistic route of creating a documentary on the struggles of single mothers instead of a reality show that ridicules them? A documentary would do a far better job of presenting lives that are “complicated” and “intertwined”. “All My Babies’ Mamas” would have only served to keep African Americans wrapped in and warped by age-old dehumanizing stereotypes.
Nicole DeLoatch is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park. L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska and a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden.
Cord Jefferson has an interesting title and short article at gawker on “House Republicans Meet at a Former Slave Plantation to Practice Talking to Black People.” The House Republicans are meeting for a winter retreat in the old colonial and slavery oriented town of Williamsburg, Virginia. To talk about guns, the debt, and government spending. He notes that irony indeed of meeting in a room named for a place of racial oppression — for a session about reaching to minorities and women, and more:
And what better place to talk about making inroads with oppressed groups than in a room named after a famous Williamsburg plantation, located in the tony Kingsmill Resort, which itself is on the site of another plantation? The GOP has heard your complaints, blacks and Latinos and women, and they’re going to try to suss it out while sitting atop dead slave bones.
Yet more evidence that the Republican Party is now substantially, and often unreflectively, the “white party” of the United States?
Before The Help was well known three of us, David W. Jackson III, Charletta Sudduth, and I, were gathering the real stories of women who worked for white families in the segregated South. Now our book, The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South is out from LSU Press.
Based on interviews with more than 50 people with intimate knowledge of what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South, the storytellers are black women of the Great Migration to Iowa from Mississippi and other southern states as well as southern white women who grew up in homes that employed domestics. In the interests of accuracy and completeness, the interviews were conducted by members of the same race as the narrators.
The first section of the book provides a historical and cultural context for what follows in the next two sections, discussing concepts such as paternalism and maternalism which made the “southern way of life” a distinct and especially insidious form of racism unique to its time and place.
The phenomenon of “maid/mistress” intimacy in a society built on norms of segregation was confusing to outside observers and rarely captured in southern films about the era. The bonding that sometimes ensued between white and black women was more puzzling still. Domestic workers were often placed in an emotional bind, loved on the one hand and rejected through custom on the other. To try to make sense of what one of the white interviewers called “the dark past” we authors drew on literary documents and sociological studies written at the time. To quote a passage from the book on the unique status of the black domestic workers:
“Aligning themselves with whites of the professional class, black women often earned the respect of members of the white community and formed alliances that could render them and their families a certain degree of protection. Black domestic workers moved freely between the white and black communities. Dressed in a maid’s uniform, they had a mobility denied to others of their race. Domestic workers often fell into the role of go-betweens, as interpreters of black life to white people and of white life to black people.” (p.33)
Part II of The Maid Narratives takes the reader into the first-hand storytelling by the African American women who are now a part of the Great Migration. Because of their long absence from the region of their upbringing, their memories are frozen in time, and the past becomes the present in their telling. Thus we hear from Elra Johnson at age 100 describe how she defied the old norms of segregation and walked right through the front door of a local building and faced off the Ku Klux Klan for her civil rights activities. “They didn’t want no Negroes to have no freedom, “ she explained. And we hear from Ruthie O’Neal who described a typical example of how the servants were instructed to abide by the norms of segregation: “She’s 12 years old,” the lady of the house would say, “call her Miss Nancy.”
The paradoxes of historic southern etiquette are striking and emerge in such statements as “I would not only clean the bathroom but I’d take a bath in the bathtub” as recalled by Hazel Rankins. Another example is offered by Vinella Byrd who said, “The man didn’t want me to wash my hands in the wash pan.” The bathroom was off limits as well. So she was forced to cook the family dinner without being able to wash up.
Taken as a whole, the resilience of these women shines through their stories. In the words of Pearline Jones who worked for a period in the home of William Faulkner and other prominent people in Oxford, Mississippi, “The way I got through all this was I made poems; I wrote poetry out of them jobs. I am old now, but I have some poems at the house.”
“Part III: The White Family Narratives” gives the perspective of those who grew up in homes that employed domestic workers and were largely raised by these women. Many are filled with regret that they never showed their gratitude to these women who were often like second mothers to them and sometimes even more. Now most of these women who cared for them are dead. One white narrator, now age 90, shares her poem entitled, “Were Our Sins So Scarlet?” In a poem that describes servants going under the house “while white folks flushed” she concludes that they were.
~ Guest blogger, Katherine van Wormer is Professor of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa
Following the post here by Sharon Chang about racism in children’s toys, there was a whole conversation about that post on Twitter. Jen Jack Gieseking was kind enough to Storify the Tweets in this conversation (Storify is just a say of gathering Tweets and putting them in an easy-to-read order – when you get to the bottom, click where it says ‘read more’). Here’s how that conversation unfolded:
President Obama has selected two human rights activists to give the invocation and benediction at his upcoming presidential inaugural, according to Politico:
Myrlie Evers-Williams, former chair of the NAACP and widow of [the famous civil rights activist] Medgar Evers, will deliver the invocation, and the Rev. Louie Giglio of Passion City Church in Atlanta will deliver the benediction, the inaugural committee announced Tuesday.
Evers-Williams fought for justice for 30 years after her husband, the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, was gunned down in his driveway in 1963. She authored three books about their civil rights work.
Evers-Williams is, like her husband was, one of the important activists–in the historic civil rights movement and for her, also for subsequent decades–that helped to press this country’s white elite and acolytes in the direction of implementing its hoary rhetorical “liberty and justice for all” ideals.
Rev. Giglio has worked diligently with organizations working against contemporary slavery and human trafficking.
About a week ago I went to see a friend and his 9 year old. My 3 year old was mesmerized by the big-kid toys. He settled on a ziplock full of figurines. From a distance, I approved. My son is currently obsessed with categorizing and organizing. Bunch of little people he could sort and line up? Seemed like a perfect fit to me.
I should have known better.
5 minutes later I sat down with him and this is what I saw:
My lower jaw fell open in shock. The entire bag was full of these types of caricatures. Mocking and stereotypical images of poor Latino/Hispanic people doing things like selling oranges on the street, sitting fat and lazy in an armchair, or toting a gun. I turned to my son with wide eyes. He looked at me expectantly. For a couple minutes I was tongue-tied. Then I shook myself out of it and clumsily said something about the toys being mean. I took them away, but was left with feeling gross and like the damage had already been done.
Just a cheap toy sold in a cheap store you would never go to? My zip code 98118 was the most diverse zip code in the nation according to the 2010 Census. Many educated, middle-upper income folk who live here consider themselves liberal as well as progressive. There is a neighborhood toy store very popular with the latter crowd that prides itself on the quality of its product. It has a huge Playmobil section. Surprise! Mostly White figurines. The last time I visited, these were some of the very few people of color represented:
Note the portrayal of dark people as primitive and backwards, or scary and dangerous.
When I searched for “family” on the Playmobil website, I get 6 results. Of these, 4 are “modern”: Black (with a basketball), some sort of Euro-Latin-Hispanic, Asian (with a book), and White. Then 2 “historical”: Knight and Native. Apparently Native families only dress in traditional garb, live in Teepees, and go to Powwows?
In attempting to buy my son diverse play people for Christmas, for lack of anything better, I resorted to Lego’s World People Set. When it was delivered, my husband and I excitedly tore open the packaging, and then – sat there scratching our heads.
Which people were the Asian ones? Aside from White, what were the other people supposed to be? My husband pointed to the lower left, “Well this is clearly the Asian family.”
“Why?” I asked.
He was stumped, “I don’t know.”
Did they simply make a bunch of the same dolls with the same European features and vary the skin tone? Why does that make me feel strange and a little sick to my stomach?
~ Guest Contributor Sharon Chang blogs regularly at MultiAsian Families (a private blog).
This is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signing, on January 1, 1863, the famous Emancipation Proclamation. The mainstream media have over the last few days recognized this date and commented on it, usually too briefly.
In the New York Times, scholar Eric Foner has an interesting commentary on this proclamation. Foner summarizes succinctly what many scholars have long documented and discussed:
Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen. It had no bearing on slaves in the four border states, since they were not in rebellion…. [and exempted] parts of the Confederacy occupied by the Union. All told, it left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage. But the remaining 3.1 million, it declared, “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The proclamation did not end slavery in the United States on the day it was issued.
Lincoln also made clear in the proclamation that military necessity justified the proclamation, which got more emphasis than the moral justification.
Foner also points out that during the Civil War’s first couple of years Lincoln persisted in his dislike of slavery, but his view was that the (white) country could not handle thousands of free African Americans, so he
devoted considerable energy to a plan for ending slavery inherited from prewar years. Emancipation would be undertaken by state governments, with national financing. It would be gradual, owners would receive monetary compensation and emancipated slaves would be encouraged to find a homeland outside the United States — this last idea known as “colonization.”
Lincoln was voted a few years, by historians, as the number one U.S. president of all time. Presumably this is because he presided over the country during the difficult Civil War, and much action he took, such as the Emancipation Proclamation and belatedly accepting Blacks as Union soldiers, during that era deservedly gets this high level of praise.
Yet, few of the current discussions of Lincoln-–in this hagiographic mood the country is in–seriously focus on Lincoln’s extensive racist framing of U.S. society and what that has meant, then as now. Most historians dealing with Lincoln now touch on his racism, but only a few like Lerone Bennett, Jr., in his much debated but pathbreaking Forced into Glory, get to the heart of the matter. Even left historians seem to lack the conceptual tools to make sense out of Lincoln’s deep racism. Their discussion usually focuses on just a few of Lincoln’s views and actions, with an argument he got less racist over time–and not centrally on the much bigger picture of racial oppression being the foundation of the nation, then as now, and on the white racial frame that was essential to rationalizing that foundation, then as now. And not centrally on how the war and Lincoln, and the war’s aftermath, were shaped by and shaped that systemic racism and its rationalizing frame. And what it meant that Lincoln stayed racist in his views to the end.
Lincoln was a willing servant of that foundational racism. Several years before he became president, in his famous debate with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln demonstrated that he operated out of a strong version of the white racist frame. For example, he argued in that debate that the physical difference between the “races” was insuperable:
I am not nor ever have been in favor of the social and political equality of the white and black races: that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the free negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office or having them to marry with white people…. I as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man.
Soon to be called the “Great Emancipator” because of his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had made his white supremacist views clear, and his racist framing would later be cited by southern officials many times, including in their 1960s struggle to protect Jim Crow segregation against civil rights demonstrators. They are still quoted by whites, especially in supremacist groups, today. One reason is clear: They reflect in some ways a deeply held white racist framing of African Americans as inferior to whites that is still all too commonplace.
At the time of the Civil War, a majority of whites, like Lincoln, in most northern areas held to a white-nationalist view of this country. African Americans were routinely seen as aliens. Across the country, in all regions, the overwhelming majority of whites held an image of this relatively new nation as ideally a “white republic.” Lincoln and other whites unsympathetic to the spread of slavery also saw the nation as fundamentally white.
Early on as president, Lincoln was willing to support a constitutional amendment (the first 13th amendment, which is ignored in the recent Lincoln movie) making slavery permanent in the existing southern states if that would prevent a civil war. Some members of the Republican Party talked with representatives of the southern planters and proposed a thirteenth amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery in the South. Lincoln was willing to accept this. However, the southern slaveholding oligarchy rejected this compromise proposal, apparently because they thought they could win a war.
December 18, 1865 is arguably the date of the real birth of a United States committed substantially, if still rhetorically and haltingly, to expanding human liberty. That was the day that the actual Thirteenth Amendment freeing all enslaved Americans was finally ratified. This legal action would not likely have taken place without the active resistance to oppression by African Americans, who thereby played a central role in bringing their own liberation. At base, it was not Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation that did the most to bring an end to slavery in these late years of the Civil War, but rather the active efforts of those who had been enslaved.
The African American soldiers and support troops in Civil War somehow get left out in most of the public discussions of US history, and in too many accounts of contributions as well. As a result of successful recruiting by the outspoken Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and other black (and some white) abolitionist leaders, during the last years of the Civil War several hundred thousand African Americans (men and women), many formerly enslaved, served as Union soldiers and support troops. Without them the war might have ended in a draw or worse. Lincoln was having trouble getting enough white men to right for the Union.
Like the black abolitionists, most of these Union soldiers and support troops undoubtedly held some version of a black liberty and justice counter-frame to the dominant white-racist frame in their minds. For example, the formerly enslaved John Washington, who ran away and became part of the Union Army’s support troops, described his new situation thus:
Before morning I had began to feel like I had truly escaped from the hands of the slaves master and with the help of God, I never would be a slave no more. I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim every cent that I should work for as my own. I began now to feel that life had a new joy awaiting me. I might now go and come when I please This was the first night of freedom.
The next morning I was up early and took a look at the rebels country with a thankful heart to think I had made my escape with safety after such a long struggle; and had obtained that freedom which I desired so long. I now dreaded the gun, and handcuffs and pistols no more.
For formerly enslaved men and women, liberty and justice were much more than rhetorical abstractions. Their sacrifices on Civil War battlefields and behind the lines helped not only to free those enslaved, but also to put the United States on track to become a freer country.
Thus, this is also a day to remember and give thanks for the circa 500,000 African American soldiers and support troops, many formerly enslaved, volunteered for the Union Army at its low point. We should also remember the great “strike” of black labor against the treasonous Confederate slaveholders and other farmers–the thousands of black laborers who fled slavery to the North or sabotaged the slave plantation economy during the war.
Even President Lincoln belatedly admitted the Union forces would have had trouble winning indeed without the black volunteers for the Union cause. That is, in a very real sense, “the former slaves freed the slaves.”
Significantly for the country’s future, the antislavery white legislators who composed and fought for the Thirteenth Amendment in the U.S. Congress understood it to mandate an end not only to slavery but also to the “badges and incidents” of slavery. (“Badges” referred to indicators of racial rank, while “incidents” referred to heavy burdens accompanying enslavement.) Senator Lyman Trumbull, an Illinois Republican, introduced the Thirteenth Amendment in the U.S. Senate in 1864. Two years later, when he and his colleagues sought passage of a comprehensive 1866 Civil Rights Act to eradicate those “badges and incidents” of slavery, Trumbull aggressively defended the view that this Thirteenth Amendment gave Congress the authority to
destroy all these discriminations in civil rights against the black man, and if we cannot, our constitutional amendment amounts to nothing. It was for that purpose that the second clause of that amendment was adopted, which says that Congress shall have authority, by appropriate legislation, to carry into effect the article prohibiting slavery. (This was, interestingly, quoted in the important 1968 Supreme Court decision, Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., on racial discrimination in housing.)
That is, this white “Radical Republican” was thinking in systemic terms, and breaking to a significant degree with the white racist framing of Lincoln and others of his day.
Today, the final Thirteenth Amendment, as well as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, should still be read as exerting significant pressure for the eradication of the many vestiges of slavery that appear in the guise of contemporary racial discrimination that is still at the heart of our systemic racism. We have in 2013 not yet ended the still widespread “discrimination in civil rights” against African Americans and other Americans of color.